This season, Will Long (Celer) has released a healthy number of works, including I Love You, recorded with his wife Miko as Oh Yoko. In this feature, he talks with ACL’s Richard Allen about loss, love, life and making music.
You’ve moved a lot over the past few years, but now call Tokyo your home. Is the Tokyo music scene more competitive or collaborative? Do you have any new instruments? Are you still teaching, and if so, how is that going?
I’m really glad to be living in Tokyo, and not to have immediate plans of moving away from is nice too. It’s nice being in Japan, and I’m happy here. I don’t think the Tokyo scene is so competitive. Though it is collaborative, which can be a good thing. Of course it has it’s problems though. Being a city with so many musicians in it, sometimes there are more musicians than there are listeners. That could be a potential problem in music in general, though, especially in the ever-changing easy-access digital age. In Tokyo, it just happens to apply a lot to the live scene.
Lately I’ve been getting rid of more instruments than buying new things, really trying to keep things I really want to use, and what I’m interested in. I’ve never had a lot of stuff, but recently really figuring out what interests me most, and what directions I want to go in help a lot. Making music for Oh, Yoko is really great because it allows me to get into many new kinds of instruments that wouldn’t have fit with Celer. It’s the same reason I started Rangefinder, to make music with synthesizer sequencers. I’ve really been enjoying the Roland Microcomposers from the 1980’s recently, which I used a lot on the first Oh, Yoko album. While I’ll be using these for Oh, Yoko in the future as well, I also have plans to use it for another solo project in 2014, inspired by the acid music of the 90’s, but with a more minimal feel. Instead of synthesizer arpeggios like Rangefinder, it’s based on step sequencing. Celer always remains centered around reel-to-reels, cassettes, and sometimes synthesizers. Though, at the moment I don’t have any Celer projects planned. Things may change, but sometimes it’s nice to work on other things for a while.
I’m also still teaching for work. Unfortunately, not being fluent in Japanese, it is one of the few normal jobs that is possible living in Japan. However, it just takes time to adjust and integrate into your place, I just have to keep studying, and be glad that I have a job at all.
I read that after the tsunami, thousands of people turned in wallets and other valuables they had found in order to honor those who had lost them. This seemed to me the highest form of reverence. What other aspects of your new culture do you feel are worth imitating and celebrating?
It’s certainly not surprising. People care for and respect others’ possessions. People seem to pay attention to these details very often. I think in Japan, respecting the privacy of others is really important. It’s very unsaid, but it seems to happen just in the way people live. Where I grew up, it’s totally normal for friends to just drop by each other’s houses on a random night when they have nothing to do, just to hang out. That really doesn’t seem to ever happen here. People go out to meet each other, and the homes are much more private. In many ways though, it’s much more peaceful and nice that way.
More than a hundred releases are listed on your Bandcamp page alone. That’s a lot of music, and there’s only a limited amount of review space and fan cash around. Do you ever worry about over-saturating the market? How do you call attention to the releases that you feel are of greater importance than the rest?
It’s really something I try not to think about at all. A lot of people talk about over-saturating the market, and artists try to time the schedules of their releases to happen at ‘just the right moment’, but for me that never worked out. Trying to plan things too much never seems to work. Labels almost always have to change their schedules, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s out of your hands in many ways. If you really want to be in full control of how your releases appear, you have to publish everything yourself, on your own schedule. If you work with other labels, it will be nearly impossible. So I’ve learned, at least.
For me, the music is like a diary. It’s momentary, but has a time and place where it comes from, or exists. I don’t expect everyone to buy every release. Not every release will appeal to everyone, but there are more than enough ways for people to preview the albums (such as Bandcamp), and they can decide if it is something they like, that is worth the investment to buy it, write something about it, or not. All of them are special to me in some way, so I just have to continue making and releasing them the way that feels right. If someone has heard and likes just one album, then that makes me happy.
As for calling attention to the ones that are of more importance than the rest, I can’t really distinguish between them. If I had to predict which ones people would have liked the most against which ones were actually the most popular, I would have been wrong a lot. They’re all important to me, so it’s up to the listener, or how much promotion is done by the labels. They’re all special in their own ways, good or bad.
You’re often asked to choose your favorite Celer album, so I have a slightly different question. Which cover art is your favorite?
It’s a difficult choice, but there are some that are favorites for different reasons. If I had to choose one that is already released, I’d probably choose Tightrope. I made that album at a really important time, in between coming to Japan for the first time and living here, so it’s special for that symbolism. For the photo itself, it was taken when Miko and I went to this place near Mt. Fuji. We happened to time the date of the visit there on the same date as a major marathon that happened in the main junction city, so the trip there took much longer than usual because there were so many people. Once we got there, the sun was setting and the area stayed open for only about 30 minutes after. It was just one of the photos that I took on that trip, and because of that it was really special.
Later in 2014, I’ll release an album on Baskaru from France, and the photo I have planned for the cover of that album is also another favorite of mine. It’s related to Tightrope in a way, but as far as the sequence of time, it’s progressed further, farther down the line. But, more on that later.
So much of your music was made with Dani, and after her passing, as a tribute. In like fashion, for years Richard Skelton honored his own wife by including her art in his releases, dedicated to her memory. Each of you has since remarried and begun a new musical stage. Have you ever met or corresponded? Does grief still play a role in your composition? What moods inspire you to write?
I have spoken to Richard over email before, but we’ve never met. I think we never even mentioned our situations, even though both of us are likely familiar. A mutual understanding in that way, I imagine. Grief is really a process, it isn’t something you just forget, it’s just accepted over time. Everyone experiences grief in different ways, and you deal with it in different ways. It depends on the person, too. I still feel it from the loss of my grandparents when I was a kid, and also for my father who died most recently. The grief for each of those people is different. It can be a paralyzing, dead feeling. You’re alive, but everything feels sucked out of you. With Danielle it was difficult, because we had only been together for a short time, with a lot of ups and downs. When it was over, I had to leave California. It felt like I was leaving all of that behind. I took the music with me, and continued to work on that, and the time I spent doing that was a way to keep myself busy and focused during that time when I was still overcoming the shock.
Even though I was living in Japan in 2011 when my father died, having a new beginning to come back to was helpful and important for me. It was difficult for me to leave my family behind, but everyone needed a new start after. It was a long-term sickness for more than a decade with a slow decline, and by the end the energy of the family was drained. Since then, we’re all doing better, and continuing on.
Now I have a home in Japan, I’m married to Miko and am happy, and things are good. We even have a baby on the way in February, 2014. I still remember my past, the people that were close to me, and the good and bad things we experienced. They will always be an influence, in different ways, and always returning in my memory. You just have to look at your life in stages, and looking back, it seems more apparent the older I get.
It was planned, but difficult to execute financially. Books are much more expensive to produce in general than music, and sell less as well. However, I am starting a website with some friends that will serve as a feature/gallery of hand picked film photography, featuring different photographers or themes, so I’ll likely display her photos there. For the writing, possibly it will be integrated into a website for her one day, whenever it is completed. Or it’s always possible that an opportunity will come up to publish the books. I hope so.
You’ve mentioned that without the opportunity to honor Dani’s spirit, you might not be here. What advice do you have for other musicians who are dealing with personal loss? What else keeps your head above water?
I think in the worst times, people have to lean on what they are most passionate about, and put their best into it. I was lucky to have the music, and it was something I could work hard on. At those times though, people are vulnerable, and it’s very possible to lose yourself, or be swept away by something that isn’t healthy for you, so it’s important to recognize what is healthy and what isn’t. I stayed in California 3 months after, and it wasn’t until I left that the feeling began to pass. For me, changing locations has always been the signal of new starts for me. Though I’ve done it a lot, not all of the changes were for drastic reasons. People shouldn’t be afraid of change, because sometimes it’s what helps you the most.
In related fashion, what music kept you going when you were younger? I have read that you were a fan of industrial and grindcore, which came as somewhat of a surprise. Have your tastes changed over time, or do you still listen to music that is vastly different from your own?
I did like different kinds of music, but a lot of different kinds. I didn’t really listen to music much until I was in high school, just whatever my mother played on the record player, or music from the movies we watched. Movies may have been more influential than music directly, or the music from the movies, because it was always something present at home. When I was in college, I was exploring many more areas, but I loved many different styles. I bought records sometimes in college without even having a record player. My listening nowadays is not really much different. I actually don’t listen to music a lot. In the past it was always something to play when my friends were over, or when I was driving somewhere. Now, it’s something to hear during dinner, or on the train. I guess it always changes, but just keeping creative has always been most important to me, whatever form it is. Exploring Japanese music is fun for me now, but it’s just always chance when or how I come across something. Mostly though, I’m just listening to the Midnight Cowboy theme, it seems like.
Your tour with Machinefabriek seems to have resulted in a greater experimentation with abrasion and roughness. Is this an accurate assessment?
I’m sure the trip to the Netherlands and the tour with Rutger had a big influence on me. I think touring has been best for me just learning how to play shows better. That tour was also the last time I used a laptop, so many of my methods changed after that. I’m not sure if he had anything to do with the abrasion and roughness for an album such as Redness + Perplexity though. I think that particular album just came out of a show I did with some very crude tapes, a radio, and some pedals I borrowed from a friend. Try using a bass synthesizer pedal to process radio sounds. It’s really harsh. If anything the tour made me feel more adventurous for live sounds, because we were having so much fun with its randomness.
Also, many of my shows are different because I never (at least intentionally) play the same thing twice. Usually for tours I make all new material to play only then. Of course that material is almost always put into an album or is an album in itself later on. I’ve done that for nearly all of my solo shows since I’ve moved to Japan. Actually, I had hardly played live before coming to Japan, maybe less than 10 times. Coming to Japan was the beginning of a lot of new experiences for me, and I think I’ve learned a lot, and become much more comfortable playing live since then, too.
I think there’s no way to predict this sort of thing, but I feel that it was very fateful. I’ve always noticed signs of good situations or bad situations, and it leads you in the right directions if you know how to follow it. If it doesn’t work, you’ll come to a brick wall. For instance, if you’re planning to move to a particular part of a city, but you don’t know where exactly, you go to many places to look first. Many places you see, and you think, ‘this is fine’, but it really leaves no impact. Then, for some reason, one place just really feels like the right place, and you instantly want to move there. It feels like you’re supposed to be there. I guess that’s how I felt when I first met Miko. We had talked over email before, as we had both released on the same company’s labels (Plop and Spekk), but when I came to Japan the first time, we met for the first time in person, and had that kind of connection. Things just naturally happen, and it’s felt like that since then, like it was meant to happen.
Tell me more about Oh Yoko (the project you have together). You’ve described it as “sincere, but with a sense of humor and nostalgia”. The new album is clearly different from any of your previous work. How have you changed in the past three years, and are you happy with the changes?
Of course, I’m very happy with the changes of the last few years. I feel like I’ve opened up to a lot of new things, and learned much more. I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished with music through Celer, but at the same time, that kind of music doesn’t always fit with every situation. Plus, it’s great to use what I’ve learned and try making different kinds of music. We originally wanted Oh, Yoko to be more of a collage-based avant pop sort of music, but once we started making music we found it easy to make songs, instead of a more abstract style. Even though it is devoid of any of the super-processed sounds and layers that are present in the rest of my music, I am using that same style of mixing multiple layers. Instead, I’m using more acoustic or hardware sounds, largely unprocessed, and on a smaller scale. For me the form is the same, but it’s also very exciting working with sounds that are much more momentary, and bright. They’re not hiding behind anything, and feel out in the open. With Miko’s vocals and her own musical contributions, I think we make a great team. For me it’s making music with the same reasoning and intention as I do on my own, like a diary of days, but sharing it with someone else, and having their contributions, and together reaching a musical point that we wouldn’t have alone, makes it all much more worthwhile, and fun.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Thanks for reading, and being interested in my work. From now until 2015 I’ll be taking some time off from performing any shows, but there will still be some releases coming out. Look for albums on Humming Conch (http://www.hummingconch.net/), Baskaru (http://www.baskaru.com/), Pocket Fields (http://pocketfields.com/), Infraction (http://www.infractionrecords.com/), and Spekk (http://www.spekk.net/). Meanwhile, I’ll also be starting a website gallery to feature film photography, called Hand-Picked (http://hand-picked.net), and continuing the labels Two Acorns (http://www.thesingularwe.org/twoacorns/), Bun Tapes (http://buntapes.limitedrun.com/), and Normal Cookie (http://normalcookie.com/). In addition, I’ll be working on my Floor Sugar store to make my related-releases available both digitally and physically. Mostly though, I’ll just be happy to be at home with my family. Thank you!
A Closer Listen thanks Will for his time and openness, and wishes health and happiness to his growing family!